Based on A.E. Hotchner's memoirs, writer/director Steven Soderbergh's 1993 adaptation of KING OF THE HILL (KofH) is the poignant, often dark, but ultimately uplifting story of 12-year-old Aaron Kurlander (Jesse Bradford, who comes across as sensitive and resilient at the same time), whose family struggles to get by in St. Louis, Missouri during The Great Depression. Like many of their neighbors, the Kurlanders can barely hold onto their cheap, shabby hotel room, though they do their best to find work and keep up a facade of doing well. Aaron contributes to the charade by telling his classmates wild yet convincingly-told stories of the glamor of his parents' lives as spies and archaeologists hobnobbing with the likes of Charles Lindbergh. Despite the Kurlanders' best efforts, they're slowly pulled apart when Aaron's traveling salesman dad (Jeroen Krabbe) can't make enough money to feed everyone. Soon Aaron's little brother Sullivan (the appealing Cameron Boyd, who looks strikingly like a little-boy version of the Olsen twins back in their FULL HOUSE days) is sent to live with relatives for the time being; Mom (Lisa Eichhorn) has TB, eventually going to a sanitarium; and finally Dad finds a job as a traveling watch salesman in Oklahoma, leaving Aaron to fend for himself and dodge the mean hotel porter to keep from being locked out of the family's apartment.
Aaron tries all kinds of money-making schemes so he can bring his family back home, but it seems like God or Fate or whoever is in charge of KotH's universe insists on bitch-slapping the kid every step of the way. A rich, sympathetic classmate (who doesn't know Aaron's broke because our hero is too proud to admit it) gives Aaron canaries to breed in order to sell them to the pet shop, but when the canaries are born, they're all female, and female canaries don't sing, so all Aaron can get is 50¢ for the lot of them. A pre-PIANIST Adrien Brody, about 19 or 20 during filming, is a raffish presence as Lester, the juvenile delinquent down the hall with a heart of gold and a brotherly attitude towards Aaron. Lester tries to include the kid in jobs such as caddying for rich golfers, but Aaron tees them off by losing the ball in the ball-washing doohickey. Aaron tries to be kind to their neighbor Ella (Amber Benson), a sickly but sweet young girl, but that backfires when she gets so nervous dancing with him that she has an epileptic fit. When Aaron gets a medal during his graduation ceremony (nice bit with Lester there to cheer as Aaron's name is called, what with the Kurlanders being scattered all over the country), even that bit of joy is snatched from him as he overhears jealous classmates whispering that he only got the medal because the school authorities know he's poor and feel sorry for him (yeah, it couldn't possibly be because Aaron gets the best grades and writes imaginative stories and essays that blow those over-privileged brats out of the water).
Over the course of KotH, just about everyone Aaron cares about is either sent away, moves away, dies, or gets arrested. Jeez, if it wasn't one thing, it was another! Interestingly, it seems like every time Aaron has an emotional upheaval, the film becomes more beautiful to look at, thanks to Elliot Davis' golden-hued photography, and yet the film's beauty doesn't cheapen or sentimentalize the painful events our young hero must live through. Aaron and the film's other good guys are kind-hearted, unself-pitying, and earnest enough that I was rooting for them even as I groaned to myself, "Good grief, isn't this poor kid ever gonna catch a break?" Much like the final reel of THE PIANIST, when the resourceful Aaron's plans to reunite his family finally succeed and life becomes good again, it's as much of a relief to us viewers as it is to the Kurlanders. Soderbergh's adaptation of Hotchner's life story often slathers the misery on so thick, I was still afraid something else might go horribly wrong for our beleaguered hero at the last minute. (For instance, as little brother Sullivan jumps up and down on his new bed, I half-expected him to accidentally bounce off the bed and break his neck. Don't worry, he doesn't. :-)). I came away with the feeling that Aaron would never again take the good things in his life for granted. The delicate balance of drama and humor in Soderbergh's fine writing and direction, as well as superb acting from an ensemble that also includes Spalding Gray, Elizabeth McGovern, Karen Allen, and Lauryn Hill -- yup, that Lauryn Hill (who later appeared with Brody in the 1998 indie drama RESTAURANT) -- makes KotH a little gem well worth seeking out on TV, especially since it's still not on DVD but has been on the HBO and Cinemax lineups lately as of this writing. If you like fact-based stories about young people overcoming obstacles, or if you want to catch folks like Brody, Bradford, or a very young Katherine Heigl in memorable early roles, check out KotH.
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